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Restaurant Owners Feed Hungry for Christmas

Sandi Digangi and Eddie Memishi came to Oak Lawn several years ago with a idea of not only opening a restaurant, but opening up their hearts as well.

Digangi and Memishi, owners of Big Pappa’s Mr. Gyros restaurant, 10806 S. Cicero Ave., got the idea of distributing 500 Christmas dinners on their first anniversary.

Meals consisting of turkey, dressing, yams, vegetables, bread, cranberries and pies were provided free to seniors, the unemployed and underemployed people who are living under the radar.

The two came up with this gesture because they felt blessed. The charitable act dates back to a horrible day in Digangi’s life. Her 5-year-old son, Gary Edward, died in a home fire in 1995.

The family turned grief into action during the holiday season by donations to toy drives. Sandi’s other children Ñ Anthony, 17, Michaline 14, and Nicolette, 11 Ñ went to shelters to serve Christmas dinners.

Drawing from their experience of Christmas past at shelters, it was decided in this take-out dinner world it would be easier to ask if dinner should be delivered. Big Pappa’s would take reservations for the free dinners. If patrons called for a dinner, they would to be delivered with toys for each child, or if customers chose, they could come there to eat.

ÒIt is Christmas and we have to have toys for the children, and we have to have Santa, too,” said Digangi. ÒPeople got involved.”

Edward Hassan, their landlord, offered an empty storefront for those who came to eat. They would need a Santa suit just in case the children came there.

When Digangi and Memishi were asked how this would work out, they had a simple reply.

ÒWe are not working it out, God is,” said Digangi.

Digangi said that getting the word out to the community was the next step. A neighbor made flyers, and another volunteer made copies to distribute.

Another volunteer went to St. Gerald Church in Oak Lawn in an effort to get the word out. An organization instrumental in helping the poor, the St. Vincent De Paul Society, could be of assistance too, Digangi thought.

St. Vincent de Paul Society works with St. Gerald and other parishes. Digangi asked the St. Gerald Parish secretary, Michele Cesaro, if the organization could assist in distributing the flyers.

Cesaro listened and suggested that St. Gerald would be interested in distributing the flyers. She later called Al Theis, the St. Gerald principal, and asked if that was possible.

Theis not only agreed but also helped pass the word to school principals in the surrounding area. Students from middle schools and high schools volunteered to distribute the information about the charitable cause.

St. Gerald’s Holy Name Society loaned the Santa suit for Christmas Day. St. Germaine collected toys for the event. A fund-raising team of John and Bill Zawadski volunteered their resources. The St. Linus Men’s Club volunteered their talents.

Stuffed animals were handmade by students at Mother McAuley High School, who came to the restaurant to pass them out. Pilgrim Faith Church in Oak Lawn donated time and money.

More volunteers came to help and start a new tradition from age groups ranging from 8 to 82. That was the first year and the goal of 500 was surpassed to 700 dinners delivered.

Another volunteer went to a job club for those who are unemployed or underemployed and handed out the flyers. Another volunteer went to a breakfast with Santa outing and got the word out about the Christmas dinner.

Volunteers who found they would be alone on Christmas came to help and start a new tradition. People came with donations of toys, time and talents. Area businesses got involved and donated their resources.

Last year, 1,100 dinners were served, according to Digangi. This year, the small little restaurant served more than 1,800 dinners.

Digangi said she took a call from a woman who asked what was needed. Digangi replied that they could use pies.

ÒThe woman said she would deliver 26 pies in honor of those who died in Connecticut,” said Digangi, referring to the shooting deaths of 20 young students and six school officials at Sandy Hook on Dec. 14.

Digangi related that two little boys came in the restaurant with new toys they got for Christmas.

ÒThey said they wanted to donate to those kids who did not get toys for Christmas,” said Digangi. ÒI guess if you ask, you will receive.”

Digangi and Memishi were asked if the holiday charity dinners will be served for next Christmas.

ÒAbsolutely,” said Digangi. ÒAll you have to is ask, and God will work it out.”

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